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INDIA'S Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government were elected in a landslide in 2014 on a platform that focused overwhelmingly on economic development and good governance. A favourite election slogan was "Sabka saath, Sabka vikas". ("Together with all, development for all") Ramping up India's creaky infrastructure was a big part of the agenda. Mr Modi vowed to provide electricity to more than 18,000 villages by 2018, launched a nationwide toilet-building scheme as part of a "Clean India" campaign and unveiled plans to build high-speed intercity rail systems, among other projects.
Mr Modi hand-picked ministers who he believed would roll up their sleeves and deliver on these lofty promises. One of them was Nitin Gadkari, who is India's Minister for Road Transport, Highways and Shipping. A former President of the BJP (from 2010 to January 2013) he has a high profile within the party. He also has all the right credentials; from an early age, he has been involved with the BJP's ideological parent, the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, which translates as National Volunteer Organisation) in which Mr Modi was also active.
Fifty-nine-year old Mr Gadkari, who has been in politics since his student days - he was a member of the BJP's Youth Wing - has a reputation for being an efficient organiser and getting things done. Most of the ministerial portfolios he has held have been infrastructure-related. When he was Minister for Public Works in the state of Maharashtra during 1995-1999, he had 55 flyovers built in Mumbai; people called him "the flyover man", a nickname he happily accepted. He calls himself "bulldozer".
He also pioneered the first public-private partnership in road building in Mumbai, commissioned a 5.6 kilometre oversea bridge called the Worli-Bandra Sea Link, now one of the landmarks of the city, as well as an expressway from Mumbai to Pune - among the best in the country - which cut driving time between the two cities from six hours to three.
Mr Gadkari has been a successful businessman, and continues to be associated with a large business empire, spanning sugar mills, agro-technology, mining, property development and power companies, among other ventures.
He has had his share of political scandals, accused of mixing his business interests with politics and of income tax evasion. But he has always fought back and no charges have stuck. Despite the controversies, he remains a popular figure, easy going and full of bonhomie. He is also widely appreciated for his effectiveness as a minister, not least by Mr Modi himself.
While Mr Gadkari is considered relatively liberal and pragmatic rather than doctrinaire, he is a staunch defender of the BJP's political agenda. I ask him about the recent appointment of Yogi Adityanath - a former temple priest with a reputation for being a champion of Hindu chauvinism - as Chief Minister of India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP made major gains in state elections in March.
Mr Gadkari says: "You need to go into the details and verify the ground-level credentials. Our problem is image versus reality. Please understand: Yogi Adityanath is a BSc in Mathematics. He is a very strong administrator and he is corruption-free. But in some sections of media, when anyone says 'Hindu', they associate it with communalism. So there is this perception that Yogi Adityanath is against minorities and Muslims." This is not true, he points out, adding that the yogi is also fighting against casteism.
The BJP supports what Mr Gadkari calls "positive secularism". He explains: "Positive secularism means we are not against minorities. We are not against any caste or religion. We believe in 'Sarva dharma sambhava' - all religions are equal, and there is justice for all and appeasement of none.
"But because of vote bank politics, some media view the appeasement of minorities as secularism. And because of false propaganda from the Congress and Communist parties, there is a lot of misinformation that we are against minorities. We are not."
He cites his own experience in elections. He was elected from Nagpur, a city in Maharashtra where minorities, including Muslims and so-called scheduled castes (the lowest caste groups, listed in a schedule in India's constitution) comprise more than one third of the population. "Muslims vote for me and scheduled castes vote for me - even though I am a 101 per cent RSS man."
But what Mr Gadkari really wants to talk about is his favourite topic: infrastructure. He is inspired by a quote from the late US President John F Kennedy, which he has framed in his office. It says: "American roads are good not because America is rich, but America is rich because American roads are good."
In our conversation - half in English, half in Hindi - he speaks with passion, peppered with statistics, about the progress of road construction in India during the last three years his government has been in office. "There were 403 stalled projects when I became minister," he says, because the previous government was not taking decisions. "They just wouldn't sign. So the whole sector had gone to sleep.
"We have taken those projects out of the ICU and even taken them out of the ward. They are working again. Still, they need some proteins and vitamins. But they are better."
The pace of construction has also picked up, he points out. "When I took charge, the progress in road construction was 2 km per day. Last year it was 18 km per day. Now it is 23 km. And by next March, we want to construct 40 km per day."
He talks about some of the mega-projects his ministry has undertaken: "We have made a tunnel in Kashmir, from Jammu to Srinagar. It is 10 km long and it is state of the art. It has reduced travel by more than 40 km through the mountains and has cut the 10-hour travel time by two hours. By 2018, we intend to further reduce the travel time to a total of four hours."
Mr Gadkari wants to build a criss-cross network of national express highways linking India's major cities. Twelve are either on the anvil or already underway, he says: One from Delhi to Katra (near Srinagar); another from Delhi to Jaipur and a 14-lane highway from Delhi to Meerut. Work is also about to start on expressways from Mumbai to Baroda, Hyderabad to Bangalore, Bangalore to Chennai, Hyderabad to Vijaywada, Vijaywada to Chennai and Kanpur to Lucknow.
He points out that before his government took charge, national highways totalled only 96,000 km - a mere 1.8 per cent of India's 5.2 million km of roads - and carried about 40 per cent of the country's traffic.
"Now, the length of national highways has reached 170,000 km and in the next three to four months we will complete 200,000 km. And 80 per cent of traffic will be on national highways."
The flow of traffic will also improve with the elimination of state-border taxes called "octroi" after India's Goods and Services Tax comes into force in July. This will enable trucks to avoid having to stop, sometimes for hours, at multiple checkpoints to pay in order to cross state boundaries.
Mr Gadkari is also overseeing major projects in India's two largest cities, Delhi and Mumbai. One of them is a ring road around Delhi, which will reduce the capital city's pollution - which is among the worst in the world - and its traffic jams. He hopes to inaugurate this on Aug 15, which this year will mark India's 70th independence day.
In Mumbai, he plans to develop some 750 hectares of land that belongs to the Mumbai Port Trust. "We are planning to build something remarkable," he says, "comparable to the three towers you have in Singapore or the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, something of world pride, something iconic." It will be landscaped and will contain a variety of leisure facilities, including a cruise terminal.
Push and pull
He is also pushing for more green transport. "Ethanol, biodiesel and electric are the options we are considering," he explains. "In my home town of Nagpur there are already 200 electric taxis. Electric buses will also be introduced. In six months you will see more electric cars and buses.
"We already have buses running on bio-ethanol. We are opening second-generation ethanol factories, using cotton straw, rice straw, wheat straw, sugar cane and bamboo."
To boost India's port sector, which also falls under Mr Gadkari's charge, his ministry is planning six major ports, building smart cities in port areas, increasing mechanisation and improving port-road and port-rail connectivity. It is also adding capacity to existing ports. One of them is the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust near Mumbai where the Port of Singapore Authority is building a terminal with a capacity for 10 million containers. Mr Gadkari's ministry is also creating waterways along the Ganges River, developing 60 river ports with jetties and introducing ferry services.
Mr Gadkari's infectious enthusiasm for the work of his ministry partly accounts for his ability to deliver results. He is also known to delegate once a decision is taken, and not interfere. As a businessman, he has little patience with red tape. "Don't play football with the files," he is believed to say to officials who delay decisions by passing project files to each other. His ministry acquires land and obtains all the government clearances needed for projects to take off, which saves builders and contractors time, money and hassle.
What also helps is the relatively generous financing to which his ministry has access. "Money is not an issue," he points out. His ministry gets about 650 billion rupees (about S$14 billion) as a budgetary allocation. Income from tolls exceeds 100 billion rupees and will go up further as additional projects are completed and monetised - more than 100 are in the pipeline.
The government has also given permission to the AAA-rated National Highway Authority of India (which builds and manages India's highways and is under Mr Gadkari's ministry) to raise up to 600 billion rupees through rupee-denominated bonds, called "masala bonds", which foreign investors are allowed to buy. While in Singapore, Mr Gadkari met some potential investors and claimed the response was "very good".
The government-run port sector - which in the past was loss-making - is now profitable. Last year, the profit was around 40 billion rupees, he says, and this year it will rise to 50 billion rupees. He claims that India's government ports now score higher on efficiency parameters than private sector ports.
But it's not all smooth sailing. One of the problems he is grappling with - in both the port and road sectors - is land acquisition. Analysts agree that progress in both areas would be faster with easier land acquisition rules and procedures.
Mr Gadkari agrees that getting approval from various authorities "takes too much time".
"The laws are passed by parliament but state governments frame the rules," he explains. "The authorities in charge are the collectors at the state level. Forest and environmental clearances are also a big problem."
"But we are very pro-environment," he adds. "We transplant trees rather than cutting them and we set aside one per cent of road construction costs for transplantation and beautification."
Road accidents are another major issue, especially with the explosive growth in India's vehicle population. The transport ministry revealed that 146,133 people were killed in road accidents in 2015 (more than 400 people per day), up 4.6 per cent from the previous year. India has more than 500,000 recorded road accidents each year.
"This is one area where the progress has not been enough," Mr Gadkari admits. "I accept it and I am very serious and sensitive about it."
He points to several reasons for the abysmal record. "One is road engineering. We have identified 786 black spots on highways and made a provision of 11,000 crores rupees (around S$2.3 billion) to improve road conditions in those areas. We are also adding crash barriers, marking systems and traffic signals."
Another problem is that it is too easy to get driving licences. "So we are opening 2,000 driver training centres where the tests will be administered by computers." His ministry has also raised traffic fines, improved emergency services and has drawn up a new Motor Vehicle Act, with the help of the World Bank.
Mr Gadkari is impatient to do more, and do it fast. "We need to change," he says. "India needs to change. We must be positive, transparent, result-oriented."
But he is, as always, optimistic. "India is within sight of double digit growth. Not this year, but in the future. Now things are moving fast. People are changing. Mindsets are changing under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi. But there are still a lot of things we need to do."
India's Minister for Road Transport, Highways and Shipping
1957 Born in Nagpur, India on May 27
M Com, LLB, University of Nagpur
Married with three children
1989 Elected to the Maharashtra State Legislative Council from Nagpur
1992-94 General Secretary of Maharashtra state unit of BJP
1995-99 Minister for Public Works, Maharashtra State
Jan 1, 2010-Jan 22, 2013 President, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)
June 4, 2014-Nov 9, 2014
Minister for Rural Development, Panchayati Raj, Drinking Water and Sanitation
Since May 16, 2014 Member of India's Parliament for Nagpur, Lok Sabha
Since May 26, 2014 Minister for Road Transport, Highways and Shipping
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